Here, montaigne is addressing a bit of anticipated criticism. In modern parlance, that criticism might go like this: Just who the heck do you think you are,. Montaigne, to write about yourself all of the time? Shouldnt you confine your writings to the vaunted geniuses and holy persons of past ages, instead of focusing all of the time on your own unproven self? He goes on to say (in his now quite-dated syntax i have this, at least, according to discipline, that never any man treated of a subject he better understood and knew, than I what I have undertaken, and that in this i am the most. i speak truth, not so much as I would, but as much as I dare; and I dare a little the more, as I grow older; for, methinks, custom allows to age more liberty of prating, and more indiscretion of talking of a mans self.
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Find the universal you. That slight aspect writing of your personality (or fantasy life, or hidden world) that you think so odd, so peculiar, so weird, that youve kept it a secret your entire life, is most likely far more common than you think. Were all made of similar stuff, we human beings. Even our most closely guarded insecurities are often commonly held, though most individuals keep these parts of themselves so hidden that theres little chance to discover the commonality. But writers are different. And along the way readers come to an understanding that we are all very much alike. The French essayist Michel de montaigne devotes much of his essay of Repentance to this notion of universality. Consider these sentences: Others form man; i only report him: and represent a particular one, ill fashioned enough, and whom, if I had to model him anew, i should certainly oral make something else than what he is: but thats past recalling. If the world find fault that I speak too much of myself, i find fault that they do not so much as think of themselves. But is it reason, that being so particular in my way of living, i should pretend to recommend myself to the public knowledge?
I happen to know the author of this essay, and he is a very likable, extremely funny man. Yet he no doubt has his mean moments, times when the things that annoy him lead to testiness or sharp anger. We all have that side to us, i believe. Perhaps inspired by william hazlitts On the Pleasure of Hating, hemley is taking a moment in his own essay to explore that aspect of himself, closely and specifically. The essay continues with the author lodging numerous complaints against folks who smile too much in photographs, against the checkout clerk at Walmart, against his kindergarten teacher—and though Hemley continues to leaven his bread of anger with humor and occasional winks to the reader,. Another good example is joan Didion, who begins her essay in the Islands with these two sentences: I tell you this not as aimless revelation but supermarket because i want you to know, as you read me, precisely who i am and where i am and. I want you to understand exactly what you are getting: you are getting a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people. Well, you simply cant get much clearer, or more honest, than that.
Look at Robin Hemleys introduction to his essay no pleasure but meanness: I have a mean bone in my body. In fact, i think i have more than one mean bone. For instance, i hate people who smile all the time. It feels good to say that word, hate, doesnt it? Would you like to try it? Say: I hate people who ask rhetorical questions in essays that cant possibly be answered. Hemley real is being witty here, poking fun at himself and at his overuse of the rhetorical question. He is also signaling the reader that this essay will focus on that part of him that can be called mean, or critical.
One meaning is that the truth is often stranger than fiction. The second meaning reminds the writer that in nonfiction, you are not just making stuff. So dont fake. Dont act all pious on the page if you are not, in fact, a devout person. Dont generate false outrage over something you dont care that much about. Dont be a hypocrite. But you can highlight a particular trait, if it is in fact true to your nature, and shine a bright light upon it for a few pages, letting it take center stage.
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Select the appropriate self. The concept of persona is crucially important for writers of creative nonfiction to understand. Although the personal essay is a form of nonfiction, and thus the self you bring to your essay should be an honest representation of who you are, we are in fact made of many selves: our happy self, our sad self, our indignant self, our. But in truth, if we attempt to bring all of these selves to every essay that we write, we run the risk of seeming so uncertain, so indecisive, paragraph that we merely confuse the reader. Consistent and engaging personality on the page is often a case of choosing which self is speaking in a particular piece and dialing up the energy on that emotion or point of view. Henry david essay Thoreau likely had days when Walden Pond did not fill him with wonder and inspiration, but he knew enough to not share those tedious moments.
They were beside the point. Or, to put it another way: Dithering is best left to first drafts, and then carefully edited away. The goal is not to deceive the reader, to pretend to be someone that you are not, but rather to partially isolate a part of who you are, the you that you are today, as you meditate on a particular subject and sit down. Be honest, but clear. The slogan of the literary journal. Creative nonfiction is, you just cant make this stuff. Its effective, i believe, because of its double meaning.
More importantly, that experience of rejection gave me a lifelong compassion for others. I remember well the self-doubts of my early writing career, when I felt completely unsure that I could ever write anything that was worthy of notice or publication. One particular evening a few decades back, firm in my memory even now, i turned toward my wife, renita, and moaned, Oh, Im just so average. Your typical guy with the typical tedious problems. Who wants to hear my story? My wife closed the book she had been reading and asked, What do you mean?
I whined some more, about an author who had just landed a big book deal. Ethnic memoirs were all the rage at that point in time and this writer had been raised by parents who once lived in Japanese internment camps. Then I complained a bit about another writer: Her father had been a diplomat, so she grew up all over the world, and at one point even survived a dangerous escape during a foreign coup detat. My life is just about identical to every other Catholic white kid raised in the 1960s. At this point, renita, bless her generous heart, nodded, smiled and said, well, then you should write about that. And she was right. I was undervaluing my own singular nature and experience: Each person, each life, is distinctive, even if you didnt grow up in a family of acrobats or spend 10 years sleeping alongside lions on the African veld. Its not what happens to us in our lives that makes us into writers; its what we make out of what happens. Its our distinctive point of view.
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